HTC ThunderBolt Launches as First LTE Phone

HTC's ThunderBolt smartphone. Sales of HTC's ThunderBolt smartphone kicked off Thursday, but it isn't clear that faster speeds it offers on Verizon Wireless's LTE (Long Term Evolution) network are exciting buyers, possibly because of their concerns about battery life.

One man at a Verizon store in suburban Boston said he was buying the ThunderBolt because its hardware seemed more durable than an iPhone 4, not because of other features or because it is the first Verizon phone running on LTE. "I beat my phones up," he noted.

Other potential buyers said they worried the faster LTE speeds would drain the smartphone's battery too quickly, a concern that was rumored to have delayed the phone's shipment date several times while testing and refinements were made to the phone.

Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney, responding to a question about shipment delays, said Thursday, "When phones have completed the testing process, we launch them."

She repeated published specs for the phone's battery life of up to 6.3 hours of usage time and up to 330 hours of standby time, and wouldn't speculate on LTE's impact on battery life.

Raney also said customer "response has been good" for ThunderBolt midway its first day on sale, although Verizon almost never offers sales figures. At the suburban Boston store, a small crowd that gathered at the 9 a.m. opening had thinned out by 9:30 a.m. and several customers were looking at the iPad 2 and other devices.

In a quick hands-on of ThunderBolt, I had a chance to operate the in-store demo unit and was very impressed by the quick loading - -almost instant -- of Web pages over LTE on several sites, including Computerworld, ESPN and the The New York Times.

An ESPN video of President Obama filing out his NCAA tournament bracket streamed beautifully, but it took three or four seconds at the launch of the clip to eliminate video tiling that completely obscured the image.

I couldn't get Web speed tests to work before another customer arrived to check out the device, the only ThunderBolt on display in the store.

Elsewhere, Best Buy sells the ThunderBolt for the same price as Verizon -- $249.99 with a two-year contract. The retailer had been advertising the smartphone for weeks in Sunday newspaper circulars for $299.99 and then on Wednesday said it would drop the price to $249.99 for three days only.

Suddenly on Thursday morning, Best Buy issued a short statement that it would extend the lower price beyond three days, but didn't say for how long.

Wirefly, an online seller of phones and wireless plans, began taking pre-orders for the device on Tuesday at $199.99, and later said its first day had broken previous first-day sales records by 400% , noting that the ThunderBolt accounted for one-fourth of sales on Tuesday.

Verizon has kept its $29.99 per month price for unlimited data with the ThunderBolt, but it isn't clear how long that will last because the carrier is committed to setting up data usage limits.

Wirefly notes on its Web site that the ThunderBolt ships without mobile video calling software from Skype, although Skype is said to have committed Thursday to providing the capability.

Analysts have linked potential battery drain to Skype video, since the app would run in the background, tracking signals.

Instead of Skype, ThunderBolt does come with Tango's mobile video calling software installed, which makes use of the device's dual cameras. The phone also features a 4.3-in. touchscreen, and 40GB of total storage.

It is probably too early to judge whether battery life concerns with ThunderBolt turn into actual problems, or how well the phones and batteries will perform in real-life conditions. Wirefly did a thorough video review of application speeds in ThunderBolt apps, but had not thoroughly tested it over LTE.

One lengthy early review by InfoSyncWorld said the battery performance on its ThunderBolt review unit was "very similar" to the HTC Inspire 4G on AT&T's HSPA network, despite ThunderBolt's 1400mAh battery being more than 10% bigger.

"Regardless, the HTC ThunderBolt will definitely need a daily charge, just like any high-end smartphone, and in some cases an additional charge throughout the day will be necessary," InfoSyncWorld said.

Analysts said that many smartphone users are in the practice of connecting a charger to the device before going to bed, although they noted that 6.3 hours of use as stated in the specs won't take many workers through a long day.

"Battery life is an issue in any of these smartphones," said Phil Asmundson, an analyst at Deloitte. "It's great if I remember to plug it in every night, but it sucks if I don't. Anything they can do to improve battery life improves customer satisfaction."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said it isn't completely clear how much LTE chips will drain batteries. "Early indications are that the LTE chipsets draw more power than older chipsets," similar to when phones upgraded from 2G to 3G, he said. "LTE will likely cause some power issues in early-gen devices."

He said the power drain will come more from the LTE radio than the phone's 1GHz processor, even though an LTE phone could be used to play and process much more video since the LTE network is 10 times faster than Verizon's 3G CDMA/EV-DO network.

Verizon lists the average download speeds with LTE on the ThunderBolt at between 5 Mbit/sec and 12 Mbit/sec, with upload speed between 2 Mbit/sec and 5 Mbit/sec.

The phone converts from LTE to Verizon's 3G network where LTE is not available, and some analysts said the switching back and forth will also tend to drain the battery more than in one network. Verizon has LTE in 39 cities so far.

"We'll probably have to wait until some devices get out there and tested to know for sure what the powerimpact of LTE will be," Gold said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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